South Sudan: Conflict leads to livestock crisis (IRIN)

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Pastoralist John Mabil says, “Right now, I am doomed.”

Mr. Mabil raises cattle in Bor, the capital of Jonglei state in South Sudan. The ongoing conflict in the country has forced him to flee – first to the neighbouring Lakes State, then to the capital, Juba, and finally to Kakuma, a refugee camp in northern Kenya.

While living in the camp, Mr. Mabil hatched a plan. He would pay for a university education in Uganda by selling a handful of his 25 cattle. Then, he would return to a better job in a peaceful South Sudan and put his remaining cows towards a dowry. He would marry, start a family and, in time, forget the war.

But in January, Mr. Mabil’s father told him that eleven of his cows were dead and several more were sick and likely to die. Mr. Mabil’s dream of a university education may die with them.

The cows suffered from bloody diarrhea and loss of appetite, which are symptoms of East Coast Fever. Because of the war, Mr. Mabil’s father had to take the animals to graze in a part of southeastern South Sudan where this disease is prevalent. He hoped against hope that the cattle would not become infected.

Thirteen months of civil war have disrupted traditional migration routes. According to an FAO report, the conflict has forced thousands of pastoralists to abandon traditional routes in a desperate search for safety.

Sue Lautze is the representative of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, in South Sudan. She says that cattle are in danger of becoming “no longer economically viable, not a viable way of life.”

According to FAO, the widespread displacement of livestock has led to “tribal conflicts, cattle raids, and disease outbreaks. [These] have all intensified on an unprecedented scale, threatening the national herd and tearing at the social, political, and economic fabric of South Sudan.”

FAO estimates that at least 80 per cent of South Sudan’s population relies on cattle to some degree. Dr. Lautze explains: “If you want to get married, there’s livestock involved. If you want to resolve a dispute without getting killed, there’s livestock involved. If you want to celebrate, to atone, there’s livestock involved … Livestock are an amazing livelihood resource.”

The government of South Sudan is well aware of the social and economic value of cattle. It used to take the lead on animal health and protection, deploying the army and police during the dry season to prevent cattle raids. Community-based animal health workers assisted farmers with vaccinations.

But the government has shifted resources from caring for livestock to the war, according to Dr. Lautze. There is only $130 million U.S. available in the national budget for all natural resources activities, including caring for livestock. In comparison, more than $1.3 billion U.S. is set aside for the military and police.

The effects of the government’s changing priorities are already evident. East Coast Fever, foot-and-mouth disease and trypanosomiasis have become major problems. One community lost 8,000 cattle to liver flukes – a parasite that is easily treatable in normal circumstances.

Peace is the only viable way for herders to re-establish their traditional routes, restore their cattle to health and rebuild markets and communities. But, Dr. Lautze says, if fighting continues, the country’s pastoralists are likely to lose the animals on which they depend.

Peace seems a long way off. Farmers are angered by the destruction migrating cattle are wreaking on their crops. Mr. Mabil’s father faced threats as he drove the cows to new grazing areas. Mr. Mabil says, “They killed some cows and when we asked them why, they started to fight.”

To read the article on which this story was based, Cows and conflict: South Sudan’s “slow motion” livestock crisis, go to:

Photo credit: A Mandari Cattle herder rubs one of his cows with ash to protect its skin from the burning sun in Southern Sudan. Kate Holt/IRIN